Biden Nominee For Top Policy Post Grilled On Iran, Tweets
"I really believe that the controversy over your nomination is essentially a proxy war” for the Iran nuclear deal, said Sen. Kaine.
Republicans on Thursday united in opposition against President Biden’s pick for the top policy position at the Pentagon, Colin Kahl, criticizing him for his support for the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and past tweets one lawmaker called “intemperate and unbalanced.”
Multiple Republican senators announced during his confirmation hearing that they would oppose Kahl’s nomination, citing a series of tweets stridently criticizing Trump administration foreign-policy decisions and the GOP in general for its unwavering fealty to former President Trump.
But it was Kahl’s involvement in the crafting of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal that appeared to be the hard policy litmus test for Republicans, who repeatedly asked him to justify his support for the agreement. Trump withdrew the United States from the accord in 2018. Committee ranking member Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., wrote in a February Foreign Policy article that Biden should “reconsider his nomination to senior national security positions of former Obama administration officials who were directly involved in negotiating the original Iran deal, as well as those who promoted it.”
"I really believe that the controversy over your nomination is essentially a proxy war” for the Iran nuclear deal, said Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va.
Kahl testified that he did not support the removal of human rights or terrorism sanctions on Iran, and that nuclear sanctions should be eased only once Iran came back into full compliance with the original terms of the deal. A “compliance for compliance” approach should be used as a “vehicle” to address other activities the United States opposes, such as Iran’s ballistic missile program, Kahl said.
He stood by his criticism of the Trump administration’s so-called maximum pressure campaign on Iran, which dovetailed with the U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear deal.
“My concern with maximum pressure was that it would encourage Iran to reaccelerate its nuclear program and try to generate counter leverage by increasing their provocations in the region,” Kahl said. “Both of those things have happened.”
He emphasized that he had no “moral qualms” with the airstrike that killed top Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani in January 2020, but that he was concerned at the time that the strike would escalate tensions with Iran.
"We came very close to a major shooting war with Iran and that was my concern," he said, citing the barrage of missiles Iran fired on al Asad airbase in Iraq, wounding U.S. service members there.
Republican senators read some of Kahl’s past statements aloud from the dais, many of which criticized specific Trump policies in the Middle East.
"The GOP used to pride itself as a party that put values front and center in US foreign policy. Now—as they debase themselves at the alter [sic] of Trump—they are the party of ethnic cleansing," Kahl wrote of the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops in advance of a Turkish invasion of Syria. The highly controversial decision left the Americans’ Kurdish allies — considered terrorists by Turkey — vulnerable to the assault.
Republican lawmakers argued that those past statements showed Kahl to be temperamentally unfit for the position.
“The position of Under Secretary of Defense for Policy requires a leader with judicious temperament and sound judgment,” Inhofe said during his opening statement. “Unfortunately, in the past, in many cases, your public policy positions have been couched in partisan politics rather than fact-based analysis.”
Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., accused him of "intemperate and unbalanced remarks" and "volatile outbursts."
Kahl apologized for what he termed “disrespectful” language, used at a time when he was not in U.S. government.
"I understand that the position of the undersecretary of defense for policy, while it's a political appointment, is not a political job. It's a policy job," he said. "One that requires me to be nonpartisan.”
Republicans were not satisfied. Sen. Dan Sullivan, D-Alaska, compared his past tweets to the kind of rhetoric that ultimately sunk a Trump nominee to the same post, Anthony Tata. Tata, a retired brigadier general turned novelist and Fox News commentator, falsely called former President Obama a “terrorist” and a Muslim, among other controversial remarks.
Several Democrats came to Kahl’s defense.
“That kind of criticism regarding tweets from folks who didn't say anything about the kind of lying, racist tweets out of the former president, I think, is pretty rich,” Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, said.
Conspicuously absent from the hearing was Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., a red-state Democrat whose support may make or break Kahl’s nomination if Republicans are united in their opposition.
Past tweets have already sunk one Biden nominee: his pick for OMB, Neera Tanden. Manchin’s decision not to support her nomination dealt a fatal blow to her nomination in a Senate divided 50-50 between the two parties.